The English idiom tongue-tied describes someone who is speechless. Originally coined by Shakespeare, the expression is still commonly used today. There are many reasons that people sometimes feel tongue-tied, and being a native English speaker or an English student has nothing to do with it. Embarrassment, nervousness, surprise, or just plain old shyness are some of the psychological causes for feeling tongue-tied.
A much lesser-known meaning of tongue-tied describes a physical condition. People who are physically tongue-tied have a tongue that is more closely connected to the floor of the mouth than normal. In very rare cases, this can cause problems including speech impediments that require surgery to correct.
So, do you need to see a doctor to speak better English? A small group of people in Korea think so. They believe that Korean children have naturally shorter tongues than Americans, which stops them from correctly pronouncing English sounds. Some parents are so worried that their children won’t speak correct English that they bring them to the doctor to get an operation on their tongue. These operations are called frenectomies. During frenectomies, the doctors cut the tissue under the tongue. This is supposed to make the tongue more flexible and better able to pronounce English sounds.
There are a lot of misguided ideas about how to learn English, but this one takes the cake. According to Dr. Jung Do Kwang, these surgeries are seldom necessary. He said, “You get ten times as many parents who want the operation as children who really need it.”He’s most certainly correct that there is no genetic reason for Korean children to go under the knife. If Koreans really had a problem with their tongues, then Koreans born in America would also have trouble with their English pronunciation. Of course, this isn’t true. There are over one million Korean-Americans, and their children’s pronunciation is no different than that of any other native English speaker. Just like all children around the world, they learn languages by speaking a lot and listening a lot. Their tongues have nothing to do with it.
Korean psychiatrist, Shin Yee Yin, has treated two young children who have had frenectomies. She blames monster parents who will do anything to make their children successful. She says, “the children, they lose hair, they bite their nails, they have sleep terrors. There is too much pressure from the mothers and teachers to learn English.”
Strangely, this often unneeded operation isn’t just being done on English learners. In 2011, a young British college student who was studying Korean had an operation on her tongue to help her learn to speak better Korean!